ARBCA Needs a Calvin

Calvin 3

John Calvin is renowned for his inflexible stance against the errors of Rome, the “Spirituals”, and others whose teachings compromised the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately many do not realize that while he so staunchly stood against errors from those who oppose the gospel, he also worked tremendously hard to establish and maintain peace and unity among the Reformed.  He was a brilliant example of the peacemaker of Matt. 5:9.

For instance, a Synod was held at Berne in 1537 in order to establish unity among the German and Swiss Reformed churches concerning the Lord’s Supper.  Zurich, Basel, Strasburg, Geneva, and Berne each sent representatives.  Bucer, the Strasburg Reformer, had always been sympathetic to Luther’s view. He had been in attendance at one of Luther’s first public disputations and had held him in the highest esteem ever since.  Megander, originally from Zurich, now representing Berne, was determined not to compromise Zwingle’s position in any way.  Dissension prevailed until Calvin came forward.  By recognizing the Biblical truth that each side was determined to uphold, he was able to set forth the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in a manner which upheld the true sentiments of each side without compromising with error.

Bucer had “pointed out that Zwingli and Luther had set out from two different points of view; Zwingli striving to keep as far away as possible from the Roman dogma of transubstantiation, and Luther endeavoring to maintain that there is nevertheless some kind of real presence in the bread.”[i]

Calvin was able, with this in mind, to formulate a doctrinal statement that did justice to the Biblical concerns of both parties without compromising Biblical truth.  In summary he said, “The Spirit is the means by which we are partakers of Christ. That Spirit nourishes us with the flesh and the blood of the Lord, and thus quickens us for immortality. Christ offers this communion under the symbols of bread and wine to all those who celebrate the supper aright and in accordance with his institution.”[ii]

To this Bucer replied “I embrace as orthodox, this view of our excellent brothers Calvin, Farel, and Viret. I never held that Christ was locally present in the holy supper. He has a real finite body, and that body remains in the celestial glory. But in raising us by faith to heaven, the bread which we eat and the cup which we drink are for us the communication of his body and his blood.”[iii]

Thus, these eminent reformers established peace with one another in regard to this vital doctrine.  They were not content to simply have each side adhere to a confessional statement that propounded the particular truths they esteemed most important.  They strove to establish peace, unity and agreement.  The Lord greatly blessed such efforts for the betterment of His church universal and the glory of His name.

Of course, the doctrine under dispute in ARBCA today is not the nature of the Lord’s Supper, but rather, the understanding of the phrase “without passions” in Chapter 2, Paragraph 1 of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689.  This is, of course an oversimplification, but we could fairly accurately describe the dispute like this.  On the one side are those whose primary concern is to uphold the unchangeable character of God.  They hold to what we could call the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions”, which was undoubtedly the understanding of that phrase by those who authored our confession.  (I happen to agree with this side, in my understanding of the issue.) On the other side of the controversy are those who fear that this classical understanding of these words is prone to give the impression that God is cold,  distant, or mechanical.  They do not reject the phrase “without passions” but define it somewhat differently than the authors of the confession did.[iv]  They rightly point to men like Warfield and Hodge as examples of how they understand the phrase.

The Heart of the Issue?

It seems to me that what lies at the heart of this issue is our understanding of the fact that man, as he is an image bearer of God, is endowed with the faculties of mind, will and emotions.  Those who are defending the traditional understanding of “without passions” are almost exclusively focusing on what man’s emotions do not reveal about God.  Affections in man arise from the affects of things outside of himself.  God, existing outside of time, cannot be affected by anything outside of Himself, therefore He has no affections.  (And other similar, sound arguments)  Those who are advocating a modified view of the phrase in question do not do so in an effort to make God more like man, but rather, in an effort to do justice to the role of the emotions of man in his image-bearing capacity.

I am a great distance from the inner workings of ARBCA and have no direct knowledge of the exact means by which they plan to deal with this issue.  But it seems possible, if not likely, that something like this will happen:  A position paper will be published that simply states the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions” and demonstrates that the authors of the confession had this in mind when they penned the words.  This paper will be voted on  and approved.  Any church that has an issue with this understanding will no longer be welcome in ARBCA.  Thus unity of doctrine will be firmly established among the remaining churches.  I think it would be a great shame if this is what actually takes place.

ARBCA Needs a Calvin

I am not saying that a position paper defending the traditional understanding of the phrase in question should not be drawn up, it should.  But it should do more.  As Calvin recognized and dealt with the concerns of both sides of the issue at Berne, so those who seek to defend the traditional understanding of  “without passions” should go out of their way to recognize and address the legitimate concerns expressed by the other side.  A careful doctrinal statement should be drawn up that not only demonstrates what the Bible teaches about God that prevents us from rightly ascribing affections to Him, but also palpably demonstrates the manner in which the emotions of man actually do reflect something of the character of God.  It must be demonstrated that justice can be done to the anthropopathisms of Scripture without resorting to any sort of modified theism.  If we really want unity in the sense that the great Reformers sought it, we must go out of our way to rightly address the issues on both sides.

We must recognize the real issue that brings about concern regarding the manner in which Divine impassibility is often taught.  For example, after listening to a sermon or lecture that clearly demonstrates that affections cannot be rightly attributed to God, a child of God may walk away saying to himself, “OK, so God is love, but He has no affection for me.”  This is hardly a comforting thought.  But if we understand that even though the love of God toward us is not an affection, in that this love is not brought about by any affect we have had on God, as a Divine perfection, it is something far greater than any affection of love we have ever experienced.  We also must be clear that the emotion of love that God endowed men with is actually in some sense revelatory of what God’s love is like.  It is a reflection of what the Divine perfection of love is, a dim and imperfect reflection, but a reflection none the less.

When one demonstrates that the emotion of anger cannot rightly be attributed to God, but merely expresses His determination to rightly meet out justice against all sin, the impression that may easily be given is that this is something quite cold and mechanical.  The problem with this is that when God speaks of His anger, He means to convey a truth that is easily lost in this definition.   God’s “hot displeasure” that will manifest itself in the eternal flames of hell is anything but cold!  The human emotion of anger is truly meant to give us some insight into the nature of God’s eternal, unchangeable disposition toward sin.

Surely we are correct to insist that it is beyond the bounds of propriety to speak of God experiencing the sensation of delight.  But we ought also to admit that the emotion of delight that men experience is in some real sense revelatory of what the eternal disposition of the Father toward the Son is like.  In this way we not only guard against the idea that God can be affected by something outside of Himself, but we also guard against the idea that this makes Him cold and mechanical.

We ought also to go beyond the Scriptural anthropopathisms that are easier to explain, such as God repenting or relenting.  We need to deal with passages such as the command “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” in such a way that God is not left just telling us not to do something that we are entirely unable to do.  Perhaps one could demonstrate that the feeling of grief a parent has when he is sinned against by a child he loves gives us some insight into God’s eternal and unchangeable disposition toward the remaining sin in His redeemed people.

We need to be as earnest to establish unity among Reformed Baptists as the Reformers were to establish unity among their churches.  I am not certain that this can ever be achieved in this area, but I am certain that we can strive for it more earnestly than we have thus far.  May the spirit of love and peace that was so manifest in Calvin and his fellow Reformers be manifest in us today.


His Throne is Forever and Ever!



[i] Merle d’Aubigne, J. H. History of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin The AGES Digital Library, Vol. 6, Book 11, p. 271

[ii] Ibid. p. 273

[iii] Ibid p. 273

[iv] For example, as one proponent of the modified view in this debate has explained:  “We take no exception to the 1689 LBCF in 2:1. We confess that God is without body, parts, or passions.  We believe in divine impassibility. God has no internal (ad intra) fluctuation, passions, or changes in his nature of any sort. We believe that his divine affections are perfectly infinite and immutable (thus, they are also impassible). Our understanding of ‘divine emotivity’ resides in his external (ad extra) interactions with his world via the very covenant condescension described in the 1689 LBCF 7:1.”


10 comments on “ARBCA Needs a Calvin

  1. Really nice post brother, thank you. I agree with you – ARBCA needs to embrace the Spirit of Calvin and the reformers (and ever the signers of the 1689) if there is to ever be true peace and unity. The Lord does not take unity lightly, nor should we.

  2. Tyrese says:

    Good post,

    However I think it would be better if you would have found a better comparison if you want to win over your brothers. Calvin’s interactions with the men you named here seem to be outside of a denomination or association. So if that’s the case, it makes sense that he didn’t insist on a set doctrine or practice. On the other hand ARBCA is an association. Do the Churches within ARBCA have biblical fellowship and unity (like Calvin) with those outside of ARBCA? If so, than your perspective sorta falls apart. Feel free to correct me if I misunderstood your blog post.


    • Thanks for the Comment Tyrese. I do recognize that the situation the Reformers were in is not identical to ARBCA’s current situation. What I was looking at was the spirit in which they strove for unity and achieved it. The fact is that in any disagreement, whether it’s between churches in formal association or not, both sides need to genuinely recognize and deal with the root objections that their opponents have. I’m simply pointing at an example of this in history and suggesting that we adopt the same spirit in our current controversy. rex

  3. bobgonzalesjr says:


    You’ve written an excellent article that, I believe, captures the very spirit which motivated the participants in the Westminster Assembly as well as the framers of the Second London Baptist Confession. As Robert Letham points out,

    The Assembly documents need to be understood as compromise documents. Compromise is inevitable in a group of 150 people. If we leave aside the Assembly’s exclusion of what it considered false …, there were clear distinctions, nuances, contours within what was considered acceptable doctrine (The Westminster Assembly, 111).

    Letham is not using “compromise” in a bad sense but in a positive sense, namely, good and godly Reformed men came together to see if they could put together a document that excludes heresy and serious error but that also includes as much diversity as Reformed theology could allow without undermining the system itself. And the aim of our Particular Baptist forefathers in drafting the 2LCF was not to place a greater distance between themselves and their paedo-baptist brothers, but to emphasize the great amount of commonality both sides shared, as they stress in the Confession’s preface.

    In light of our esteemed predecessors, I would propose that ARBCA refrain from voting on the Theology Committee’s current position paper. Though that paper contains much that both sides could agree with, it only represents one side of the issue and does not, in my opinion, sufficiently take into account the concerns of those on the other side.

    A better approach, in my view, would be for the leadership of ARBCA to appoint a study committee that consists of representatives from both sides. I think this is something similar to what the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has done when doctrinal disputes have arisen. Moreover, since this is a weighty issue involving theological concepts that are very near to God’s incomprehensibility, plenty of time should be given for the committee to meet and discuss each other’s positions and hear one another’s concerns. After all, at least two leading theologians in ARBCA have acknowledged that it took them a good deal of time to mature in their thinking about the doctrine. If credentialed historical-systematic theologians needed time to work through this doctrine, how much more time should be granted to the non-experts!

    In the best case scenario, a “compromise” position paper could be drafted that (1) clearly excludes Process Theology and Openness Theology, on the one hand, but that also (2) addresses concerns about the potentially dangerous trajectories of what the other side perceives to be philosophically speculative constructs of divine simplicity, eternality, and immutability. The churches of the association could then be asked to vote on a position paper that was framed by representatives of both sides. The result could be a unity that is based on both truth and also mutual respect.

    In the worst case scenario, the committee would publish two papers, something like a “majority report” and a “minority report.” The association would then examine both papers and decide whether to (1) adopt only the “majority report” or (2) to adopt both papers as positions that are allowable within the confines of the Confession. Even if this resulted in a parting of ways, I think the parties could do so with a greater confidence that every effort to maintain peace was vigorously pursued without sacrificing truth and principle.

  4. Tyrese says:

    Thanks for your response Rex! My question then is how would these men (the reformers) deal with disagreement if disagreement arose within the context of a denomination, or association? Would it have been the same, or would there be some differences?


  5. pgordon2222pg says:

    Tyrese puts his finger on the real problem which is the existence of the type of organization that ARBCA is. You really are not able to work our differences and disagreements in the kind of spirit Rex advocates and Calvin exemplified amid the machinery of rigid bylaws, standing committees and constitutional lawyers Associations and denominations create. Disband the association and you can work on these problems without the drama.

  6. Hi Rex,
    I’m not sure how you’re affiliated with ARBCA or what exactly led you to write this post a few months ago, but since I stumbled upon it today on this side of the ARBCA General Assembly which dealt with the doctrine of divine impassibility in a very peaceable, gracious, and loving manner, I’m curious to whether you will write a follow-up to this post. Will you?

    I think that the Assembly last week proves the last comment by Pastor Gordon completely wrong, and instead serves as a testimony to the great value of a formal association like ARBCA and all of its “machinery.”

    For more information on how the issue was handled at the General Assembly, check out this interview:


    • David,
      Thank you for the comment. You say you don’t know what led me to write this post a few months ago, so I will briefly explain.
      As I stated, I hold to the traditional understanding of impassibility. That being said, as I listened to various SS series and read various blogs written from that perspective I was troubled by two things.
      1) While men were doing an admirable job defending the classical view, in my opinion, those I read/heard were not making enough effort to deal with the issue of the Bible’s use of emotive language concerning God. (Which is the real source of contention between RB’s on this issue) For instance, in one brother’s SS series, every time he addressed an objection to his view, it was something from an open theist, or liberal, never an actual objection from a RB brother. If we want to win our RB brothers over to our side, this type of treatment is the opposite of helpful. Others, like Samuel Renihan, did actually address the real issue in a limited extent, but while his explanation about emotive language describing pefections instead of emotions in God was very helpful when speaking of God’s love, I was entirely unsatisfied with his explanation with regard to God’s anger. And if I, who agree with him on impassibility, think his explanation makes God’s anger seem cold and mechanical, I don’t think it will go far in convincing those who are on the other side of the issue. My primary objective in this blog was to get our side to deal more thoroughly with the Bible’s emotive language and demonstrate that justice can be done to it without compromising the traditional understanding of impassibility.
      2) I was disturbed by the way some were framing the argument. From reading certain blogs you would think that Samuel Renihan’s “Reader” had been published 20 years ago and everyone holding to the 1689 was in full agreement as to what “without passions” meant, but some upstarts came along and attacked the doctrine, and as they grasped for straws in attempting to support their aberrant views, they sought for refuge in Warfield and Hodge. What I believe is actually the case is quite a different story. I believe when certain RB pastors read Hodge and Warfield, knowing that they were both confessionally reformed, they did not see their teachings as attacks on the doctrine of impassibility, but rather thought that they were teaching a more nuanced view that they felt did more justice to the emotive language of Scripture. They adopted these views and have been teaching them for years without any intention of disregarding the confession. While I agree with those who believe that their teachings in this area do actually depart from the original meaning of the confession, I think we need to be more careful not to misrepresent the intentions of those who stand on the other side of this issue.
      I have heard nothing but glowing reports about the GA. From all accounts it was conducted in a spirit that demonstrated the love of Christ, and graciousness and kindness abounded. I praise God for these reports, as they come from men who I trust, love and respect. I have not read the position paper or the larger paper, so I cannot make any comment as to how they deal with the emotive language of Scripture. I wasn’t planning on making a follow up on this; I said what I felt needed to be said at the time. Perhaps after I’ve had the opportunity to read the documents that were produced, I may comment on them, especially if I find that they provide the explanations that I have been desirous of.

      • Thanks for providing some context, Rex. Follow-up question: Are you a member of an ARBCA church? Just curious.

        While I can understand where you’re coming from, I’m happy to report that the ARBCA Theology Committee has done an outstanding job addressing the very points you bring up, both in the newly-adopted position paper as well as in the conversation that surrounded that paper and this topic at last week’s General Assembly. I highly encourage you to read the position paper once it is posted publicly (hopefully soon!) on the ARBCA website, and I think you’ll find that divergent/alternative/modified views on divine impassibility are thoroughly addressed.

        You also wrote in your original post, “those who seek to defend the traditional understanding of “without passions” should go out of their way to recognize and address the legitimate concerns expressed by the other side.”
        Because your post and some of the comments that followed so emphasize the importance of loving and open discussion about the doctrine, as well as unity and peace, I think it’s important to acknowledge that legitimate concerns on all sides have indeed been recognized by way of the General Assembly, and the result of the discussion was fruitful, productive, and peaceful. Thus, I think the concerns regarding a spirit of disunity and an unwillingness to dialogue within ARBCA are, by God’s grace, already proven unnecessary in this scenario. But may it be our prayer that mutual love and respect for the brethren continue as we work our way through this sin-cursed world.

      • David,
        I am a member of an ARBCA church. I just downloaded the position paper that was made available on and plan to read it tomorrow. I’d also love to read the longer version mentioned in the interview you made reference to, but I wonder if I will have to wait for it to become a book. If you know of any way I can get hold of that longer paper I would be greatly in your debt! Since I wasn’t at the GA, I can make no more comment to acknowledge the spirit in which the discussions took place, other than to reiterate that men I love and trust reported wonderful things about the peaceable manner in the subject was dealt with.

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